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The Case for a Right to Education

A new lawsuit shines a light on our educational system.

In September, a unique lawsuit was filed in Michigan against Gov. Rick Snyder and numerous state education officials, claiming that students in Detroit are being denied their constitutional right to literacy. The 133-page complaint, filed by the pro-bono Los Angeles-based firm Public Counsel, is attempting to gain class action status.

The lawsuit highlights poor conditions in Michigan schools, like classrooms so hot teachers and students literally vomit, vermin in schools, outdated and limited books, an overall lack of teachers, and much more. Detroit’s school districts have some of the lowest performing schools in the country.

“In one elementary school, the playground slide has jagged edges, causing students to tear their clothing and gash their skin, and students frequently find bullets, used condoms, sex toys, and dead vermin around the playground equipment,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit is attempting to build off of the 1954 US Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, and assert that students have a right to literacy under the Fourteenth Amendment. That may sound like a heavy lift, but many legal scholars not involved in the case believe the case could be successful and historic.

“The legal theory underlying the suit is both creative and rock-solid,” Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe told the Guardian earlier in September. “If you think of Brown v. Board as one shoe that dropped, this is the other shoe,” he said, “because though it eliminated, technically, inferior schools for blacks, and eliminated de jure segregation, it didn’t achieve one of its basic goals. And that is a decent educational opportunity for all kids, regardless of race, regardless of class, regardless of geography. That’s become a more elusive goal.”

AlterNet recently spoke with attorneys Joshua Anderson and Michael Kelley, who are representing the seven students bringing the lawsuit, to learn more about the case as it stands, and the road ahead. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Thor Benson: Can you tell us what this is case about?

Michael Kelley: It is about confirming access to literacy as a fundamental right under the United States Constitution. Probably the most significant evidence that the State of Michigan is not providing access to literacy in the Detroit schools is the achievement statistics. For example, at one of the elementary schools at issue in this case, only about 4% of third-graders, and less than 3% of fourth-graders, scored proficient or above on the state-mandated achievement test. In one of the high schools that’s involved in the case, less than two percent of the 11th-graders are scoring proficient in English. That’s sort of an important overarching fact that we think is key.

What about the actual physical school conditions?

In terms of the physical conditions that contribute the lack of access to literacy, there are inadequate books. Too few, and some are outdated. The instruction materials that the teachers work with are inadequate. The physical conditions really are horrendous. Among other things, there is also a failure to regulate temperature in the classrooms, dangerous or missing equipment, and a pervasive problem with vermin.

Is there a problem with the number of teachers actually available to teach classes?

There are quite a lot of vacancies with the teachers in the schools in Detroit. That presents a real challenge and results in very large class sizes, and even a situation last year at one of the schools involved in our case where for about a month there was no teacher for a math class, so an eighth-grade math student was actually teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math classes.

Who’s most impacted by these poor quality schools?

The schools in Detroit are very high percentage students of color, and part of our theory in the case is that the conditions in the schools and the failure to deliver adequate literacy instruction deprives these students of equal protection and a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment.

If you won this lawsuit, how big of an impact would it have, and what would happen next?

I think you have to put the impact into two categories. The first category is achieving real reform on the ground in Detroit, and there we think the impact would be very significant. It would require the state to establish an evidence-based, systematic approach to literacy instruction and intervention. After all, literacy is something that you have to address not only in the early grades but throughout a student’s career in school. We think achieving that would be a very significant impact. The other major impact on the ground would be to require the state to monitor and eliminate the kind of deplorable conditions in the schools that present a barrier to these students achieving literacy.

What about outside the state of Michigan?

I think the other impact would be the recognition by the courts that access to literacy is a fundamental right, because that would be an impact that would affect not only the schools in Detroit and Michigan, but across the country.

Joshua Anderson: That’s really what makes this lawsuit so unique and different, because there have been other lawsuits that have been brought to establish a right to adequate education or literacy under a state constitution, but this is the first of its kind to seek to confirm a fundamental right to literacy under the United States Constitution.

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